Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Cane River Characters and Revisionist Mythmaking in the Work of Kate Chopin

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Cane River Characters and Revisionist Mythmaking in the Work of Kate Chopin

Article excerpt

One of the threads weaving its way through the writing of women from Amelia Lanier to Virginia Woolf is the attempt to recast into a more palatable form traditional Western myth with its patriarchial point of view--a point of view which molds our realities, fixes our values, and limits the vision of individual possibilities. A sizable portion of feminist literary criticism in recent years has been devoted to discovering and decoding those female retellings of archetypal human experience and to explaining how the process of revisionist mythmaking works as women from the past have tried to "rewrite" their stories.

In "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and the Revisionist Mythmaking," Alicia Ostriker explains the process of revisionist mythmaking: "Whenever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible" (317). Ostriker details how "old stories are changed ... by female experience, so that they can no longer stand as foundations of collective male fantasy. Instead ... they are corrections; they are representations of what women find divine and demonic in themselves; they are retrieved images of what women have collectively and historically suffered; in some cases they are instructions for survival" (316).

There are few better examples of the revisionist process at work than in the regional stories and tales of Kate O'Flaherty Chopin. The Creole characters in such collections as Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie become the perfect vehicle for Chopin's revisionist writing: her Natchitoches folk, with their "directness and lack of sophistication," their "more genuine and spontaneous, more natural and wholesome" zest for "a hedonist enjoyment of the present" (Seyersted 96), are set apart from the traditional types more susceptible to the patriarchal colorings employed to construct myths about marriage and female sexuality current in Chopin's gilded America of the 1880s and 1890s. In stories like "Charlie" and "The Storm" Chopin presents revised portraits of women achieving fulfillment in roles other than marriage and of women evincing a passionate nature considered inappropriate by conventional, patriarchal standards of "Victorian" America.

Chopin had little patience with the saccharin myths that molded the lives of men and women in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as Emily Toth points out in her recent biography, Chopin, as the unconventional wife of a Creole planter, did her best to flaunt the feminine standards of provincial Cloutierville in her own life--galloping through the cane fields astride her stallion, managing the plantation store and her amiable husband, Oscar Chopin, and perhaps even carrying on a torrid affair with friend and neighbor Albert Sampite. Later, in an 1894 published review of the Hoosier poets, Chopin indirectly suggests her own realistic aesthetic, one wonderfully infected with the clear-sighted attempt to revise the limiting images offered by a patriarchal society: "[in their] garden of Eden," she says of this particular group of Midwestern local colorists, "the disturbing fruit of the tree of knowledge still hangs unplucked." The real world, as Chopin knew it, was one far removed from the philosophic pablum offered America by this collection of poets; indeed, it was one where, as she wrote, "human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning" is "stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it" (Works 691-92). Chopin has many of her Creole characters purposefully pluck "the tree" in order to discover their own awakenings; in so doing she revises accepted myths about duty, marriage, and sexuality in order to achieve a more realistic understanding of the human condition. …

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